© Simon Opladen

Closing the Educational and Digital Divide in the COVID-19 Times

FROM: Daniela Lilja – 07. May 2020
© Simon Opladen

According to UNESCO, 1.3 billion children and adolescents are currently unable to attend school. In many developing countries, homeschooling is not an option: the digital divide is now leading to a dangerous educational gap. This calls for fast and innovative solutions to skill development and education.

Children without access to learning material

Despite comparatively few infection cases, Tanzania acted promptly to the COVID-19 pandemic by closing public schools and forbidding meetings with more than ten people already mid-March. This means that millions of children have been out of school countrywide. While private schools shift their teaching into the digital space, many children and youth from public schools are mostly left without learning alternatives. As in many developing countries, closed schools and no distance learning opportunities threaten to widen the educational gap.

The immediate shutdown of schools took everybody by surprise: teachers, students and parents. Our SITT program, which provides school-based training for teachers in collaboration with the Tanzanian Teachers’ Union, had to reorganize all planned activities. To address immediate challenges, we formed four WhatsApp groups with 410 members, including teachers from 330 primary schools, local government authorities and tutors from teacher colleges. The platform raises awareness about COVID-19 and enables members to share online sources of educational materials. Members then share assignments and information with parents or directly with students via WhatsApp or SMS.

However, this approach doesn’t work for families without internet access. The project is working, in collaboration with the Tanzania Teachers’ Union and various government entities, on a longer-term solution, which we see in broadcasting learning programs via local radio and TV for primary school kids, where older siblings support younger ones in a peer-learning approach.

Alleviating COVID-induced unemployment for youth

Vocational skills education and training face their own challenges. First, training courses and internships have been halted. Second, vocational course graduates often first work in low paid, insecure jobs. But once the economy slows down, these jobs are the first ones to go as job cuts come in. And for the newly graduated, any prospects for employment evaporate.

In our Vocational Skills Development project YES, we adapted new training modalities, making smaller classes and selecting courses relevant to the current situation. For example, 27 youth started a short course on making liquid soap and sanitizer. We divided the training into three batches of 10 trainees per session (in line with the Tanzanian regulations) with as little personal contact as possible.

After ten days of training, a business mentor supports the youth while they start their own production to get an income and to supply the local market. For now, they can produce and sell under the trademark of the training provider to start immediately and postpone the lengthy process of business registration.

Looking into the future

As an NGO, our duty is to ensure no one is left behind. Whereas private schools and elite universities are already using digital solutions, children and youth in poor communities lack access to online services – if they even exist. This calls for fast and innovative solutions: mobile kits to borrow, internet hotspots for downloading material or supporting sharing economies of digital devices within communities.

Development of an online learning platform is about to start in Tanzania. It will provide content on skill development and beyond. In particular, the platform will teach digital literacy, a key skill that is crucial for lowering the digital divide between genders and social classes.

Although digital solutions may not be ready for immediate use, the current situation has brought about a change in the mindset of different stakeholders. Development organizations and the society as a whole should use this momentum to accelerate the development of digital solutions, reach youth in remote places and allow people to study flexibly, well beyond the current crisis.